On academia and the tragedy of secularism

On academia and the tragedy of secularism

By RAZIUDDIN AQUIL | 31 October, 2015
Professors often suppress new research and smother fellow research scholars who might outgrow them.
The tragedy of secularism in India is that those who talk about it most do not practise it themselves. Mullahs claiming to be secular sound contradictory in terms, but the so-called liberals and secularists hiding a loathsome self inside their thick skin is a matter of shame. 
For how else can one explain the difficulties faced by minorities, those coming from weaker sections of the society, women and young people in terms of having a toe-hold in academics, the near absence of their voice, resistance to the outcome of their research, and obstacles in their professional growth put by old patriarchs and their cronies? 
This is not to defend the government, whether at the Centre or states facing aggressive communal onslaught, but those claiming to be speaking for reason need some serious soul searching, on how secularism remains a virtuous ideology with strong support from the country’s governing principles and long historical antecedents and yet it sounds like preaching something that is not actually practised. 
The struggle is not only against aggressive right-wing violence in the public domain, but also to survive serious violations within academia, which is hitherto controlled by people who claim to be left or liberal. Powerful professors do all kinds of things in order to suppress or marginalise any new research coming from outside of their fold, sometimes smothering their own research scholars, who have the capacity to outgrow them in the long run. 
These politically and intellectually dishonest people are responsible for the sorry state of academics, not for nothing that they lack moral authority or credibility when they speak for secularism and tolerance as the guiding principles of the Indian state, which are seemingly being abandoned; but then we need to have a strong faith in Indian democracy, with parties in power getting away with violations before they are removed by the same people who bring them to power.
From historical experience, even the most dreaded world-conquerors spoke in the language of peace and justice when they came down from their horses to rule — equitably and magnanimously; since they had the power to conquer, they were also confident of their power to control and govern. By contrast, every time the state and its governmental machineries collapsed, creating widespread chaos and anarchy, the social and political flux paved the way for a new cycle of new people taking over with fresh energies and sincere commitment to uphold inclusive ideas of justice for all.
Thus, it is also a moment for historians, social scientists and others engaged in the business of intellectual labour to reflect on how the reconstruction of the mind of the people is becoming impossible now, with a herd mentality getting swayed by “nonsensical and discredited reports”, which, as the all time great Muslim historian and proto-Sociologist, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) had warned, are the hallmark of a society facing a political churning (Syed Farid Alatas, Ibn Khaldun, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013). 
For Ibn Khaldun, historical writing involved deep knowledge and subtle explanations of how and why of historical events, in other words, get to the truth of the matter. Reminiscent of the context like the present when historians have more or less lost credibility in terms of any respect for their voice in the domain of popular politics, Ibn Khaldun criticised political propagandists, who were masquerading as historians and spicing truth with gossip and false reports. 
In such a questionable and discredited kind of practice of history, the reporting of historical events was often founded on errors and wild conjectures. He added that those who lacked competence entered into the discipline of history, which was sought to be blindly passed down from generation to generation without any critical spirit or inquiry.
When academia is in such a sorry state and when mobs are also unleashed just on the basis of rumour and invented reports, there is little that one can expect from men of religion and those who thrive on its abuse in politics. 
In such a situation, liberal philosophers, intellectuals, scholars, and artists are expected to rise above the filth of popular politics. As seen in the long-drawn struggle over reason and faith in medieval Islam, philosophers such as Ibn Rushd argued that differences of opinion over metaphorical interpretations of complex legal or religious issues were intellectual prerogatives and their crude popularisation involving mobs was a flawed strategy. 
Tragically however, burning and banning of books of opposite groups, theologians/philosophers-intellectuals, were the usual practice in the wake of change in political regimes. Thus, historically, intolerance and abuse of power for suppressing contrary opinions are as true of academia as of a crisis-ridden society. 
A stable polity can have space for all dissenting voices, and anarchy will consume even those in power.
 

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